Alejandro Escovedo On Punk, Glam and the School of Mott

Michael Minasi / KUTX

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Alejandro Escovedo in Studio 1A w/ Jody Denberg

Friday, January 13, 2023

By Jeff McCord

Among the musical legends of Austin, Alejandro Escovedo’s might be the most unlikely of stories. Like so many musicians, he was born into a large musical family in San Antonio. He worshipped his older brothers Pete and Coke Escovedo, professional musicians who both played in Santana and many other bands. (And Pete’s daughter – Alejandro’s niece – Shelia was a key collaborator with Prince).

I became friends with Alejandro during the days that the True Believers sat atop a mountain of great bands in mid-eighties Austin. By then he seemed every inch the seasoned musician. We would work together briefly in the nineties when I managed a songwriter collective called the Setters (with Michael Hall and Walter Salas-Humara), and earlier, alongside each other at Waterloo Records in the lean days between the Believers break-up and the launch of his solo career. And it was there I really got to know him as more than just a musician. He was a passionate music fan.

Because, here’s the thing: Despite his destiny, his upbringing, his immersion into music, he loved music, but initially, he didn’t play music. 

Ed Perlstein Photo session in Alejandro’s bedroom

“I was into records.” he explains about his early years as a kid growing up in Huntington Beach, California. “I wasn’t playing, but I was into records. All my friends were in bands, you know? So I would just hang out with all my mates.”

Alejandro wasn’t around his much older musical brothers that much, but he always loved when they would drop by to visit. 

“They would be playing like in L.A., and they would come in these convertible Cadillacs with like all these beautiful girls, you know? And they were always so sharp. You never saw them in a pair of jeans, They were always in suits. Those memories were really great because they would start playing in the house all the time.”

Yet, gifted a guitar by his father, Alejandro passed it on to his brother Javier. Much later, after he moved to the Bay Area with the intention of studying film, he launched a documentary project with friends about a punk band called the Nuns that couldn’t play their instruments. And then, finally, he discovered he loved the stage and the Nuns became a real band, actual San Francisco punk pioneers, on the bill when the Sex Pistols played their 1978 curtain call at Winterland. From there Alejandro migrated to NYC, played with Judy Nylon and others, and got a call one day from his friend Chip Kinman about launching a new band. 

That band, the country-punk Rank and File, would eventually move to Austin. It was there he reunited with his brother Javier, and they began hatching plans for a new band. There was just one issue. Alejandro had yet to write a single song.

“I didn’t write my first song until I was 30.  I wrote my first song here. And basically, because I was suddenly thrown into a town that was nothing but songs and songwriters, you know. That gave me encouragement because I was kind of like the George Harrison figure in Rank and File. Tony and Chip wrote great songs, I’m not taking that away. But it was not an encouraging environment.”

“I think ‘The Rain Won’t Help you When It’s Over’ was the first song I wrote. Javier came with a bag full of songs. He had great songs, and I just wrote that one. It changed the complexion of the band, but it kind of gave us a little more character than we would have had if we just stuck to one songwriter. And then when Jon Dee [Graham] came in, it really became this amazing collaboration of three songwriters, with Denny and Kevin.”

The combination of literate songs and a fearsome triple-guitar attack proved to be a bright flame that quickly extinguished, largely due to record company indifference. But it burned into Austin music fans’ memories and helped launch a solo career for Alejandro that has never abated. Eventually, with well over a dozen albums in his name, Alejandro began staging elaborate annual concerts, one career-spanning, and others in tribute to heroes like Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. 

Fans had learned to expect surprises. Even so, when he announced a show for 2023 in tribute to Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter, some were a bit puzzled. 

It made perfect sense to me. I flashed back to his early orchestra shows, where their cover of “I Wish I Was Your Mother” played a big role. Or our discussions of glam rock on the floor of Waterloo. 

I’ll tell you a little thing, when Javier and I started to brainstorm the True Believers, we wanted to be the southwestern version of Mott the Hoople. We wanted those literate lyrics and we wanted to be a real rock band, though, we really wanted to play loud and hard. Their arrangements were so amazing. They were just so different than other bands.”

Alejandro’s backstory is permeated in punk, but when I tell him he’s more of a glam rock guy, he laughs. 

“That’s where it really began. Yeah. Growing up in San Antonio when I was a kid, I had a cousin. Her name was Gloria, and she was a big Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry fan, you know, Big Bopper, Fats. Yeah. And I fell in love with Fats Domino. He had such a great presence, just always smiling and having such a great time. I remember I always wanted him to be my father. But then growing up, when we moved to California in ‘57, ‘58, it was all surf music and beach music, you know. And then the sixties came, and I was really attracted to all the garage bands, you know, like Limey & the Yanks, the East Side Kids, Shadows of Knight, Count Five, Standells, all those bands I loved. They were kind of the beginning, the framework for what became punk rock. I always loved the Stones and the Yardbirds. The Pretty Things were another favorite. But then in 1968, ‘69, when I got introduced to Mott and Bowie and T.Rex, they still weren’t making the records they made in the early seventies. But I was very curious because of the fashion.”

In his recent Studio 1A appearance, Alejandro talks of buying the debut Mott the Hoople recording back in 1969, intrigued by their takes on the Kinks, Neil Young and Doug Sahm as well as their general English swagger. 

Alejandro would come to know their singer Ian Hunter well. During his well-chronicled 2003 Hep C diagnosis (and his subsequent refusal to do much about it), Escovedo found himself near death, seriously ill with no medical insurance. A benefit album, Por Vida, was announced and two of the first tracks a weakened Alejandro would hear were from two of his heroes; John Cale and Ian Hunter. After years of “ripping off Mott the Hoople”, Alejandro told Jody Denberg, he wept when he heard Hunter’s version of “One More Time”. John Cale would end up producing Alejandro’s The Boxing Mirror while Hunter would appear on his 2010 release Street Songs of Love. 

Yet when Hunter’s longtime backup band, the Rant Band called, he was taken aback. Hunter’s failing health was keeping him off the road. Would Alejandro, they wondered, be willing to front the band in tribute to Hunter?

It was quite an ask, one that not only meant quickly learning a couple of dozen songs. 

It was very daunting. Those songs, the registers are very high. And I’m not a singer. I can interpret songs, but I do it my way, you know? These guys, having been his band for 20 years, pretty much stuck to the arrangements that they had on the record and they had already figured out. So I had to really, man, I had to really adjust to something that was quite different, you know? But I’m so glad I did it. It’s been a great learning experience for me.”

You might even call it formative. Alejandro’s recent 1a session, along with his Paramount and Continental Club performances with the Rant Band were joyous and thrilling, filled out by star turns by guests like Scott McCaughey, Mitch Easter, Jon Langford, and Charlie Sexton. 

At 72, decades into a career of one impressive milestone after another (recent highlights include collaborating with Brice Springsteen and releasing the acclaimed 2018 album The Crossing), you might think Alejandro has little left to prove to anyone. But he’s showing no signs of slowing down. 

Michael Minasi / KUTX Alejandro Escovdeo and the Rant Band perform in Studio 1A at KUT Public Media Studios

In Spain recently, he decided to book some time in the Italian studio owned by Don Antonio, his collaborator on The Crossing. 

“They’ve got this amazing studio there, right? It’s at the top of this mountain overlooking vineyards and it’s gorgeous. The building was built in the 1500s, you know. It’s this big stone. I think it was a mill at one time. So the sounds in there were incredible. We went back through the catalog and just found all these songs, you know, that I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to, hadn’t played a lot. Some of them were B-sides. I even did a Nuns song. Jennifer Monroe, who was in the Nuns, used to come out and open the show with a song called “Lazy” that she would do solo.” 

The album includes gems from throughout his career; True Believers, Buick MacKane, along with covers of his favorite artists. Alejandro hopes to have it out by year’s end. 

And he’s already writing another record, about his early friendship with Payomkawichum, Ipi and Mexican-American performance artist James Luna. 

He was a big influence on me. We lived together in an Airstream trailer in Huntington Beach when I ran away from home at 15. He taught me about art and music, and we listened to everything from Sun Ra to the Temptations. I’m writing a record based on our friendship.”

But before all that happens, Alejandro and the Rant Band are taking their show to Europe. 

It’s really still kind of scary, I got to tell you, because the songs are so amazing and I don’t want to mess them up. We’re going to Spain in March and we’re going to London, we’re playing in Dublin, Glasgow, Sweden, and Switzerland. There I’m really afraid because Mott fans are true to Mott, you know, and they’re sitting there going, ‘This guy’s not Ian Hunter’. But I’m not presenting it like that. I don’t pretend to be and I don’t want to. I’m not singing in an English accent or anything, and I can only do them the way I do them. But I love the songs as much as the audience does, and I think that’s what comes across.”

Set List:
All the Way to Memphis
Drivin’ Sister – ft. Scott McCaughey
I Wish I Was Your Mother

Alejandro Escovedo – vocals; Tom Curiano – drums, bgv; Dennis Dibrizzi – keys, bgv; Paul Page – bass; James Mastro – guitar, mandolin; Mark Bosch – guitar; Karla Manzur – bgv; Gina Holton – bvg; Scott McCaughey – vocals
Producer: Deidre Gott; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman; Rene Chavez; Audio Mix:Jake Perlman; Cameras: Michael Minasi, Rene Dominguez; Edit: Renee Dominguez; Host: Jody Denberg

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